Flexible work options can backfire, studies show

June 15, 2013 at 10:26 AM
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SAN FRANCISCO, June 15 (UPI) -- Choosing flexible work arrangements in the United States could be detrimental to a career, recent studies found.

In effect, you can take traditional work rules out of the culture, but you can't take culture out of the work environment.

The studies found that men who ask for flexible time schedules or an extended break from work after a child is born face the possibility of being held back at work. Women are also put on the so-called "mommy track" if they choose flexible work options, the studies found.

Studies show that women taking time off for a child are viewed as not dedicated to their jobs, while men are viewed as more feminine, The New York Times reported Saturday.

"Many times these [flexible work] policies are on the books, but informally everyone knows you are penalized for using them," said Joan Williams, co-editor of a series of studies published in The Journal of Social Issues and the founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Williams said she coined the phrase, "flexibility stigma" to describe the negative repercussions of choosing non-traditional options at work.

Those options include working at home part time, job sharing, or working longer hours some days to take a five-day schedule and compress it into a three or four-day schedule.

For men and women this can result in slower promotions, smaller raises and less meaningful work assignments.

This can explain why flexible work arrangements are more available, but they have been slow to find widespread acceptance.

"These studies show that deep-rooted cultural values intertwining work devotion and gender identity drive the flexibility stigma," Williams told the Times.

On the other hand, it can also help explain the percentage of women in the workforce.

In the United States, 74 percent of working-age women were working in 1990, which put the country sixth on a list of 22 developed countries ranked for participation by women in the workforce.

But as other countries have increased work flexibility options, the United States has dropped to 17th place by 2010, even though the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce had risen to 75 percent.

"Maybe we have reached a maximum and we can't go any higher. But this suggests we could go higher if we worked on these work-life balance issues," said Cornell University economics professor Francine Blau.

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